An instructive example from Bangladesh in the Action Research Journal
Last year, I was invited by the editors of the Action Research Journal (ARJ) to author one in a series of short papers which offered reflection and feedback on the articles published in certain volumes of the Journal. The May 2017 edition of ARJ features this format, in which the feature articles are followed by these brief response papers.
The article I was asked to review was written by five authors from Vrije University in Amsterdam: Anastasia A Seferiadis, Sarah Cummings, Jeroen Maas, Joske GF Bunders, Marjolein BM Zweekhorst. Their article, “From Having the Will to Knowing the Way: Incremental transformation for poverty alleviation among rural women in Bangladesh” focuses on a women’s livelihood training program in northern Bangladesh. From an action research practitioner perspective, their article focuses on the iterative, adaptive design of this program over a span of more than a decade.
My response paper, available at this link, noted a few limitations with the group’s approach, namely that the team’s process was action-oriented and adaptive but not participatory. The progressive changes in the program made over years were not driven by direct feedback from the participants but rather by observations of the authors/program directors. Observational data and participatory data don’t exist in mutually exclusive universes; certainly there would have been much overlap. However I felt the program could have been more attune to the participants’ needs and could have evolved more rapidly if the authors had engaged the participants directly by providing roles/mechanisms for them to actively and consciously shape the program.
Nonetheless, I highly recommend spending some time with this paper because of the way that the authors have documented and explained the evolutionary development of their program. While I may have some disagreement about the level of participant engagement within the program, I find the narrative explanation of how and why the program was adapted very effectively articulated. As such, I find the paper a useful resource for teaching about action research.
Action research, in a world where most people’s exposure to research approaches is limited to basic positivism, doesn’t seem to them much like research. In this narrow view of research, circumscribed by the concept of the scientific method, rigor is defined by setting up a strict, clear series of steps which are followed without deviation. While this variety of research is important and valuable, it is certainly not the only way to conduct research, particularly when working with people in an effort to shift their social dynamics and quality of life. Nonetheless I find much resistance amongst students and colleagues when I suggest that they can change their action research process in mid-stream if it isn’t meeting their aims. The mantra “if it’s not working, change it” seems too good to be true. Indeed good research to them is exemplified by a lemming over a cliff mentality; even if it’s going to fail you must follow through and document the failure. From this perspective, no wonder that most people see research as rarified, in that you have to know everything and anticipate everything before you even start. Certainly there are disciplines where such failure is ok and can provide important learning; however, when dealing with people’s lives and livelihoods it’s far better, and far more ethical, to make changes as soon as the better path becomes apparent.
For this reason, I find this paper from the Vrije researchers quite instructive and informative as a teaching aid, for demonstrating the process of iterative research design in action research. I have taught iterative research design several times this past year to USIP Generation Change colleagues in Kenya. The idea of iterative design, even when explained and justified, still seems counterintuitive to most people’s native sense of how research is supposed to work. The Bangladesh paper goes a long way in helping to shift that perspective. While the paper contains several dimensions and lines of analysis, almost of half of the content is focused on adaptive design. There are 3 charts that convey the design components in different ways, by timeline, by learning cycles, by the key activities within each cycle, as well as through a highly useful graphic which combines all of these elements at once.
Moreover, in the text of the article, the authors provide extensive detail of the situations within each learning cycle that drove specific changes at each key moment. In Empyrean’s action research trainings, we walk our students through each of these different phases from the article and so that they clearly see the linkages between the key situational/programmatic/contextual issue and the change in the methodology that resulted. That the project is a relatively straightforward livelihood project also helps—one location, one group of participants over time with a finite, clearly understood goal.
Earlier in the Empyrean training module we will have explained the concept of recoverability as a key element of quality and integrity in action research. It’s initially a challenging term for students/team members to grasp, but the Vrije paper, with its well-differentiated learning cycles, graphics and timelines, provides a concrete example of how recoverability can be evidenced thoroughly and convincingly.
I commend the writers for their efforts to articulate and visualize their iterative design process so thoroughly. For those who teach action research approaches in academic or project settings, I recommend this paper as a valuable addition to your reading list and as an instructive example to deconstruct thoroughly in class.
What other examples/case studies do you use to help your students and/or co-researchers better understand the iterative design process?
The previous two blogposts reviewed the new research report Translating Complex Realities Through Technology that I co-authored with colleagues at the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation (SLF) in Cape Town.
In this post, I interview one of my co-authors on the report, Dr. Joanna Wheeler. Wheeler, now based at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), has worked in participatory research for the past twenty years. Her work started in the favelas of Brazil, looking at the linkages between democracy, violence and social change. She notes in the interview, “Violence played a key role in how social change happened, or often didn’t happen.”
After many years working at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), she relocated to Cape Town. Working in Cape Town provided an opportunity for her to engage more deeply with communities and more in a sustained manner than flying in episodically from England.
In the interview we discuss her work with various forms of participatory storytelling and film which have become central to her research practice in recent years. In her 2014 TED talk, Wheeler reflected on the importance of digital storytelling for transforming the narratives about individuals living in marginalized contexts. In this interview she discusses her subsequent expansion of this work to include collective analysis processes of digital stories and group filmmaking.
Key points from the interview include:
Joanna also raised the possibility of returning to her American roots. “After 20 years of doing this work overseas, I am feeling compelled to bring it back to the US.” We at Empyrean Research would welcome this opportunity to continue our collaboration with Joanna here in our local context, in our communities in Tennessee and across the United States.
Henry, a Rastafarian bossie doctor from Cape Town, narrates his storyboard during a digital Storytelling for Transformation workshop connected to the Translating Complex Realities research.
In the previous post, I introduced the Translating Complex Realities report, based on a research collaboration between Empyrean Research and the Sustainable Livelihood Foundation (SLF) in Cape Town, South Africa. The focus of the study was to examine how the use of technology impacts citizen participation in research and political processes.
From the beginning of the project, I and my coauthors--Joanna Wheeler, Gill Black, Andrew Hartnack and Mariam Waltz—were particularly interested in how technology could enhance the voices of citizens to make them more readily heard by government. In other words, what could these new processes teach us about government accountability?
We examined a variety of research processes carried out by SLF over the past seven years. To inform this analysis we looked retrospectively at three streams of work which SLF had already completed. These included:
· Multiple, rounds of research on the ever-evolving informal economy within the Cape Flats townships surrounding Cape Town.
· A series of research activities and actions regarding participatory monitoring and accountability (PMA) which served to give voice to communities in feeding back to the South African government on its local service provision within the townships, in particular around public safety and community policing.
· Collaborative worked carried out with the CSO Sonke Gender Justice regarding the causes and responses to gender-based violence (GBV) within the townships.
To add further specificity and breadth to the study, we also carried out two new projects expressly for this research:
· One focused on natural resources conflict, building on earlier work and relationships SLF had established with Cape Town’s community of Rastafarian bossie doktors, whose practice of natural healing relied on plants harvested from protected government natural areas.
· The other project focused on government-organized community health councils which monitor the quality of health services provided in the townships by a variety of non-governmental organizations contracted by the government to provide front-line care to citizens in these areas.
All of the cases included in the analysis were within the South African context, within Cape Town and its townships.
The cross-cutting analysis of the five cases provides significant insights into accountability in South Africa, on the ways government engages with citizens at the community level, and what is needed to make these everyday interactions a new locus of government accountability:
1. Accountability isn’t only systemic, also it’s personal. Engagement with the state is an everyday experience for citizens—with neighborhood police, with service providers, with local government officials, etc.
2. The accountability discourse frequently overlooks day-to-day forms of accountability and must take a participatory turn to account for these citizen-level experiences of the state.
3. A shift toward ‘participatory accountability’ would acknowledge the daily forms of marginalization/exclusion perpetrated by the many faces of the state.
4. Accountability is both a process as well as an outcome.
5. Accountability in South Africa is hampered by a persistent distrust of government which lingers from the apartheid era.
6. Efforts to improve government accountability most acknowledge social and historical contexts.
7. The impacts of intermediary civil society organizations on government accountability are often non-linear and borne out over time. Success depends on a variety of factors and actors.
8. Government responsiveness must happen through government engagement with people’s everyday lives.
9. Government accountability requires giving attention to developing the most marginalized peoples’ abilities to articulate their experiences and positions.
10. Everyday citizen experiences with the state can recast accountability issues, and are a necessary element to meaningful dialogue with those in political power.
11. Accountability is not a binary of citizen and state; there are multiple-overlapping forms of power which exist at the local level in which citizens operate on a daily basis.
As the report concludes:
There is not just a ‘macro’ state of institutions and elected officials. The state exists in small, everyday forms in people’s lives... This research shows how the state is perpetuated through relational dynamics and micro interactions. As such, citizens actively engage with the state in numerous ways, both informal and formal, on a daily, even hourly, basis… What is missing is a lens to notice and analyse these micro interactions as forms of citizen–state engagement and to leverage these intentionally as mechanisms for increasing accountability (27).
We hope this paper creates a dialogue about how to bring the accountability discourse to the level of marginalized citizens, to acknowledge their daily, lived experiences of the state, so that these citizens can be key actors in demanding, shaping and maintaining various forms of government accountability which enhance their security, wellbeing and livelihoods.
Empyrean Research, working in the collaboration with the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation (SLF) in South Africa and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK on a project funded by Making All Voices Count (a joint initiative funded by DFID, USAID & SIDA), recently completed a study examining how the use of technology impacts citizen participation in research and political processes. The final report, Translating Complex Realities Through Technologies, was published in July by IDS.
From the beginning of the project, I and my coauthors--Joanna Wheeler, Gill Black, Andrew Hartnack and Mariam Waltz—were particularly interested in how technology could enhance the voices of citizens to make them more readily heard by government. At SLF, my colleagues had been incorporating a variety of technologies into their research processes since the organization’s founding in 2010. They were quite familiar with the perceived value-added of incorporating technology into their research; the tech dimension appealed to many policy-makers, who felt the incorporation of tech inherently qualified research as ‘cutting-edge’.
While there was identified value on the policy side of the equation, that technology frequently grabbed the attention of government officials, at least initially, what had been less analyzed, however, was how technology affected the everyday citizens who participated in the research process and whether the technology actually helped them to more effectively achieve their goals when pressing the government and other stakeholders for change. Specifically, the research asked the following questions:
In order to better understand these intersecting issues empirically, we examined a variety of research processes carried out by SLF over the past several years. We looked retrospectively at three streams of work which SLF had already implemented. These included:
To add further specificity and breadth to the study, we also carried out two new projects expressly for this research:
All of the cases included in the analysis were within the South African context, within Cape Town and its townships.
Within these five cases a variety of technologically-enabled research methods were utilized, including:
The paper provides further description of each method and how it was woven into the research methodologies of the different case studies. Annexes at the end of the document provide extensive explanation of the informal economies work, the process with the bossie doktors, as well as the research with the community health committees.
Key findings of the cross-cutting analysis related to participatory methodologies and technology include:
The inclusion of technologically-enabled research methods in participatory research processes can open new possibilities for how participatory data can be created and how it can be disseminated. However, technology is not a shortcut, nor does it change the nature of participatory work. Relationships, trust and clarity of purpose remain the cornerstones of effective participatory practice. Technology can amplify what is produced but it can cannot be a substitute for these prerequisite conditions.
Part 2 of this piece will focus on the findings of this research which relate to government accountability.
Empyrean Research is pleased to share its latest video interview in its ongoing series of profiles of global practitioners of participatory change. Empyrean Research director Felix Bivens interviews Meagan Fallone, the CEO of Barefoot College, at the Barefoot College campus in Tilonia, Rajasthan, India.
Deep into the arid landscape of Rajasthan, India, lies one of the most radical and enduring outposts of the India’s ‘barefoot’ movement. The barefoot approach challenged the implicit narrative of international development-- that the poor are poor because of a lack of knowledge and skills-- and instead lifted up the indigenous, grounded knowledge and practices of rural communities that they had gained through hundreds of years of close observation and engagement with their environment and innovation with available resources. The barefoot approach also highlighted the capacity of rural people to learn and practice sophisticated activities even without formal education and literacy. The movement led to the emergence of barefoot health workers, barefoot researchers, barefoot architects and more. All variations emphasized the efficacy of local knowledge and while accepting that people from rural communities were open to learning new ideas and practices, especially from peers in other communities.
One of the most recognizable figures from this movement was Bunker Roy, the well-educated son of a Delhi family who moved to isolated Tilonia, Rajasthan, after university, in 1965, to help his rural countrymen and women. His expectations were upended quickly and he became a student of the well diggers and laborers that he worked with rather than their teacher. Tilonia altered the direction of Roy's life and career. Tilonia became his new home. Inspired by the barefoot movement and finding that it resonated with his experiences in Tilonia, Roy helped to create the Barefoot College in 1972. It was indeed a college in that it sought to be a place of learning and a repository of knowledge. It was also opposite of a college in that the knowledge it promoted, in that those who taught and in that those who learned were all deeply rooted in rural communities of Rajasthan. Barefoot became a defining voice in the Barefoot movement, drawing visitors from villages across India and beyond as well as gaining international prominence. As development discourse shifted sharply away from integrated community development approaches in the 1980s and toward the macroeconomic principles of structural adjustment, the barefoot movement faded in visibility. Barefoot College continued its work all the same, building a second campus in the 1980s using local techniques and practices.
Reimagining ‘Appropriate Technology’ for Development
In the late 2000s, Roy and he colleagues moved in a direction that embraced the growing availably of high tech but low cost technologies for rural communities. Roy knew that communities could master the technology, but wanted communities to maintain their autonomy. He envisioned that these technologies could bring new and additional livelihoods rather than supplanting old ones. The college had experimented with solar on its own campus and had been teaching communities to use parabolic solar cookers for years. Now solar electricity production was viable at small scale, especially given the relatively low demand of a rural household in the developing world. So Barfoot began to develop small portable, household solar units that could fit into just a few boxes that could be carried, on foot if necessary, to remote rural communities. The technology was available, but the question of how communities maintain such equipment has always been one of the concerns of the barefoot movement. The rural development landscape is littered with wells and water purification systems which are broken down permanently because the local community doesn't have parts or training for the fix.
Roy and the Barefoot team wanted to overcome this challenge though education, by providing sufficient training that the barefoot solar engineer in the community would be able to disassemble and reassemble the components down to the very circuit boards. This posed multiple challenges. How pedagogically to train semiliterate and illiterate students to be electrical engineers. At the very least such training would take months, which raised the issue of who could leave a community to even take part in a training of this length and complexity. Like so much of Barefoot’s previous work, the answers to these questions that were arrived at were simple but unexpected and transformative.
The training system that was developed was entirely visual and based on a color-coded system for the wiring of the various components. It would be delivered through a six-month residential program that would involve hours of hands-on learning by doing everyday until the design and construction of every component would be second nature to the students. In terms of who these courses would be offered to, Barefoot selected one of the most economically marginalized demographics in any community-- grandmothers. While often much younger than grandmothers in more developed country contexts, grandmothers are still most everywhere seen as non-economic actors, who are valued for childrearing abilities rather than for their potential as entrepreneurs and community leaders. Indeed it was this marginality that made them available to participate in the program. As non-income earners it was possible for them to leave their communities for the extended duration of the engineering course. While this was a pragmatic solution, it also had transformative implications for the participant and the community she came from. The grandmother would leave her community, even her country for six months of sophisticated training in electrical engineering and then return to her community as the manager and technician of the community’s only source of electricity. No longer a marginal figure, she would be educated, important and a business owner with a reliable income.
Solar Mommas Rising
If this seems like a utopian scenario with a variety weak links that seem too implausible for success, consider that the program is now been running for more than eight years, that two cohorts of fifty solar trainee grandmothers-- now affectionately referred at Barefoot as the ‘solar mommas’-- train in Tilonia at Barefoot College each year and that five replications of the program have already been created outside of India and that four more are in the works and that the program is now sustained by an Indian governmental agency grant. By working against convention, Barefoot has created an enormously successful initiative which led to an invite from TED for Bunker Roy to give a talk about the college and the solar mommas. Three million views later, the solar engineers program has global visibility and has attracted the attention of government and business leaders, including global leaders from the tech industry.
While the program is extraordinary in its own right, a significant part of its growth and recognition is due to the efforts of Barefoot International’s CEO Meagan Fallone who took over the post in 2010. She has taken a particular interest in the solar program and often travels to the remote communities that have requested to participate in the program. Likewise she has tirelessly promoted program to funders and other governments, paving its rapid adoption in 9 countries outside of India.
My teaching work with Northeastern University provided an opportunity for me to visit the Barefoot campus for the second time in the summer of 2016. As part of the visit, the students and teaching team sat down for an interview with Fallone and Roy. We also engaged with the current batch of solar mommas and observed their training process. Please see the video above for the interview with Meagan Fallone and highlights from the engagement with the solar trainees.
Fallone emphasized the importance of the solar program on a variety of levels, particularly how it impacted women and the gender dynamics in the communities where the solar systems are installed. She quoted research that estimates that the marginalization of women from economic activities reduces global economic output by 23 trillion dollars each year. The participants in the program have seen significant increases in their incomes after operationalizing their solar businesses. Indeed electrification leads to a rise in village incomes overall. Moreover the women also report changes in their social status. They are now recognized as professionals. As well, they become part of the decision-makers in the community and find themselves operating in formerly all-male circles of power. Perhaps more importantly, Fallone noted the systemic impact on women and girls that comes with light-- increased safety at night, opportunities for study and economically productive work after dark, and as a result, fewer children in the longer run, so that family resources can be concentrated on a few children rather and dispersed across many.
During our time in Tilonia, we visited night schools organized by Barefoot. Many children in the villages surrounding Tilonia work as herders during the day, from sunrise to sunset, and as such do not have time to attend school. Using the same solar package utilized by the solar mommas, Barefoot has established night schools so that these children can receive several hours of basic education each evening after they have complete their herding work. In the short time we visited the school, a dusty courtyard outside a small earthen building illuminated by two bluish LED lights, we could see the energy and joy of the young children as they learned and socialized, a complete reversal of their long lonely days of herding, a small but important shift that may change the direction of the lives of those children. One imagines similar scenes playing out across rural communities where one of Barefoot’s solar engineers has returned home to bring light and new opportunities to all parts of the community, from the youngest to the grandmothers, to fulfill their aspirations and to participate in the world more fully, and on their own terms.
In Memoriam: Carol Judy, Appalachian Warrior & Healer
In September 2016, I traveled to Eagan, Tennessee, to the Woodland Community Land Trust to interview Carol Judy, a pillar of learning and activism in the Clearfork Valley, who touched the lives of thousands over decades. It was a trip I had made many times, having known Carol since 2011. As we laughed our way through this interview, with the light and sounds of Appalachia pouring through the open windows, I never imagined it would be the last time I would be able to sit and have such a conversation with this great and grounded thinker. Carol became ill at the end of the year. In the caring hands of many friends from the community, Carol passed in February. This interview and blog are my tribute, one of the many that have been offered, to the life and vision of this Appalachian warrior and healer.
Knowledge can be gleaned from books and from study, but the most powerful and original knowledge emerges through experience, from action, interaction and observation. In academia and education, we rely too much on secondhand knowledge, on reading the research papers of others and on textbooks for our students. Our references are too frequently journal articles and abstract concepts, not real places, examples and projects that we ourselves have participated in or created.
Existing most days in this environment, when one encounters a source of deep wisdom borne out of experience and intimate connection with place, it is like drinking from a mountain spring that trickles cold and clear out of the rock, in contrast to processed water long stifled in a plastic bottle.
Speaking with Carol Judy was metaphorically, and often literally, a trip to that spring. There is no one way to describe Carol. The more I knew her the less I could I could offer a specific definition of her role and ways of thinking. As a young woman she had traveled the country with her husband, making their living as itinerant farm workers. That time shaped in her a great appreciation of land and nature, and left her with an open-hearted love of people regardless of their status or education.
She later settled in Appalachia, in the Clearfork Valley, an expanse of coal country bisected longways by the Kentucky-Tennessee border. She became a daily student of the mountains, of the plants, animals and ecological systems there. As her connection to the land grew, Carol became a noted root-digger and herbal healer, and was often interviewed by “incomers”—visitors to the valley—about her knowledge of plants and their various capacities for the treatment of ailments. Clearfork is and remains an active mining area and Carol’s devotion to the mountains made her an activist against the environmental destruction that came with open caste mining, better known as mountaintop removal.
She was committed to community and served variously as staff, board member and volunteer at the Clearfork Community Institute, the valley’s community development engine. Locally Carol was most beloved as mentor for young people in a community with few opportunities for them but “getting out.” For those who stayed, she helped them to see the mountains as an inheritance and a wonder rather than as a trap. She did the same for many student visitors from universities near and far who expected to take away from Appalachia a vision of environmental destruction but who often left instead with an understanding of the mountains that echoed deeply inside of them with a hopefulness that outweighed and outlasted the sights of coal tips, overburden and slurry ponds.
Carol played all of these roles in Clearfork and more. She was systems thinker and generalist who wasn’t bothered with having a title or a set profession. She served the mountains and her community and did so with great love and careful attention to place and people. Appalachian mountain forest was her compass and analytical framework for all systems and interactions, be they human or with other ecological zones like the sea: “It’s just a woods in the water. The whole world is woods to me.”
Her understanding of the mountains, their ecosystems and, indeed, even their chronosystems, was so embedded in her everyday thought and language that even the sharpest of minds would find themselves outpaced by the scale and depth of her insights, articulated with such simplicity that the thought and the impact were often disassociated, like a sonic boom where the sight of a plane doesn’t foreshadow what comes a few moments later. And so it was when the substance of Carol’s ideas caught up with the words themselves. “These mountains are just slow moving land waves,” she would often say. “If you see like the mountains, it’s just rising and falling.” She challenged people to think over longer timeframes than most had ever considered: “If you’re not thinking in 500 year cycles, you’re not thinking.”
Carol tirelessly fought for the mountains, for their own sake and for the benefits they provided to her community and the communities all along the eastern US, aware that mountains create a substantial portion of the world’s potable water. “If you don’t have good water, you don’t have a good life,” Carol told me in September. We discussed how the world needed a paradigm shift from seeing the mountains as the periphery of life to the core since so much of the air and water upon which cities depend is created there.
Given her ability to think across eons of time effortlessly, Carol’s ultimate concerns weren’t for the mountains themselves. Of her environmental work she told me, “Quite frankly it’s about saving humanity, not saving the mountains. Mountains have the time to heal themselves.” She knew the work of change would be slow and intergenerational. “We didn’t get here in one lifetime, so the fixes aren’t going to get here in one lifetime. It’s an ongoing restoration.”
Nonetheless, she held on to hope with an optimism rooted in the eternal solidity of the mountains. She cultivated the young people of the valley to go out and learn about the world and to come back to rebuild their struggling mountain communities. She charged incomers to go back and do the same in their contexts. Working together across bioregions, race and nationality, she believed large-scale change remained possible: “Our liberations have to be bound up together. We sure as hell jump-started the destruction of the earth, why can’t we jump-start its healing?”
Carol, thank you. And know that we continue your work, tirelessly and unfailingly, like the mountain waves of Appalachia.
"It Never Was a Clear Path": Reflections on Change and Consistency and Meaning in the Work that You Choose
For those of us who work in international development, consulting and social change, it is usually a long and winding road to get to this field. Even when you’re solidly in the work, it’s still tempestuous, going from country to country, state to state, assignment to assignment, working with all manner of partners, from government agencies to citizen associations. In the midst of the work, and the excitement and fulfillment that comes with it, it’s easy to become accustomed to all of this variability, even expect it.
I was recently asked to speak at Sewanee, my undergraduate institution, to a group of upper level students who are nearing graduation and who have interests in careers in non-profit, international development and other socially oriented professions. Spur of the moment, we videoed the talk. As it was shot from far across the room, the production quality isn’t perfect, but I thought it would be a valuable way to share some of the thoughts that came to mind when I stepped back and looked at my professional evolution over the past 18 years since leaving university myself.
I’ve summarized the four main points of the talk below. Themes of change, learning and reinvention predominate, but also a recognition that there are also some important constants, in particular the moral conviction and personal commitment that drew me to the work in the first place and that keeps me motivated through all of the long haul flights, time away and the myriad of uncertainties that accompany each project.
In the talk I focused on four areas where I encouraged students to question conventional wisdom, regarding failure, careers, non-profit versus for-profit work and the international versus local sphere:
1) No such thing as failure
In life, as in projects, things rarely go as planned. However, the upending of a plan or collapse of a dream isn’t failure fullstop, but an opportunity for learning and reinvention. Unexpected changes will hurt in the moment, but try to see these shocks as what another participant in the program labeled ‘beautiful collisions’ which send you down new and unexpected paths, which are perhaps inherently more rich because of their emergent, unforeseen nature.
I left university expecting to go into political work and law. More than a year on the road with Al Gore’s presidential campaign and the messy end to that election at the US Supreme Court sent me reeling back home to Tennessee, to Appalachia and into community work. I still aspired for several years to go to law school before realizing I hadn’t run away from my calling by working in community, rather I had finally come to it. Letting go of old dreams isn’t failure, it’s self-discovery.
2) No such thing as a career
There are very few people who will stay in the same job their whole lives. Not only will most people change organizations multiple times, increasingly we all will leap from sector to sector, from non-profit to for-profit to government and back again. This doesn’t have to be a source of anxiety but can instead be a source of energy and regeneration. If one toils continually in the same work in the same location, most people will grow tired and cynical and feel constrained in their opportunities and contributions. By changing locations and roles we learn more, have impact on new colleagues and influence the wider world through a variety of avenues.
Ultimately it isn’t really about the job anyway; it’s about the commitment you make, the contribution you want to send out into the world through your energy and gifts. The job is only a vehicle for this. The job will inevitably shift but the commitment can remain the same.
Even when I worked as a political organizer, I was happiest in small rural communities, listening to people and understanding their challenges. I struggled at having to rush away from these connections when the next round of primaries catapulted me abruptly to another state. In working in community development, I enjoyed the substance and impact of these relationships, over years not months. After 5 years working with the same communities and people, I moved on from my position as a service-learning facilitator and pursued an academic route in graduate school. Afterward I worked as a university faculty member and a university administrator, but always wanting to bring my students and institutions in close contact with communities. I found this easier to do working on my own as an independent consultant, educator and researcher and so started Empyrean Research in 2014.
My story hardly looks like a well-planned career path, but the thread that connects is my faith in communities and in everyday people to make good change in the world.
3) No more far away
It’s no longer a choice of whether to work locally or to work globally. The globe is more interconnected than ever and becoming smaller with each passing day. Our everyday actions have impacts across the world. Whether or not you actually travel or live outside of your native country, your colleagues, organization and products will reach across the globe and link you to multinational networks and result in impacts halfway around the planet. More than ever the internet and social media allow us individually to build networks and alliances with friends and colleagues everywhere who share our commitments and vision.
Particularly for those under the age of 25, your generation will be one of the most influential in history as your peer group across the world is massive, especially in the Global South. As my colleague Anita Patil-Deshmukh noted in an earlier Empyrean Research blog, “The world has never been so young.” Use the resources at hand and connect, connect, connect.
When I began community development work in rural Tennessee in 2001, I never anticipated it would lead me to a life as a global citizen. However, within two years I was visiting Bangladesh, studying examples of innovative rural community development that inspired and informed my work back in the US. That’s still the basic pattern of my work. Learning from, sharing with and connecting communities. In a given year, I typically work in several states in the US and a half-dozen countries around the word. It’s not about East or West, Global North or South. It all connects, it all relates. Ideas, innovations and inspiring action exist everywhere and communicate universally. I’m fortunate to be at the coalface of this exchange, but all of us are now involved in it in some form.
4) No such thing as a strictly non-profit livelihood
As well it will be very difficult to make a lifelong livelihood strictly in the non-profit world. The non-profit model is a challenging one which requires continual fundraising and grant-writing. Competition for resources is equally if not more fierce than in the for-profit arena. For this reason, non-profits are often unsustainable as a business model. This vulnerability has led to the rise of innovational organizational models such as social enterprises which generate their own revenue through for-profit activities but direct this income to socially valuable ends, or mosaic organizations which combine for-profit components and non-profits programs in a sustainable organizational eco-system. As such your skill set will likely need to span all sectors.
Fellow Sewanee graduate Becca Stevens has demonstrated the power of such integrated models with her nationally recognized social enterprise Thistle Farms, which supports intensive recovery and job training programs for survivors of sex trafficking. The organization’s programs are in large part funded by the sale of a bath and body product line produced in house and sold by Thistle Farms itself.
Again, it’s not the job or the role or classification of the organization that will matter. It will be your personal commitment which underlies and spans all of these roles and brings consistency, impact and fulfillment from your work.
I’ve worked in government, non-profits, universities, political organizations and now own my own business. Empyrean does the work of a research think-tank but is situated in the private sector. I consult with universities, government agencies, citizen groups and NGOs. I have to understand the political economy and room to maneuver for each of these entities within their sectors. I have to be able to analyze and strategize from their positionality and not just my own.
I don’t see consulting as a final destination by any means. The greater goal is to start a new university one day soon. But given all the roles I’ve played, the consulting I’ve done and my commitments to community and social justice, don’t think that this new university will be academia in any conventional sense; it will be a product of this new hybridized and integrated world.
Don’t Expect a Straight Path
Whether you are a college student nearing graduation like the students I addressed in October or a mid-career professional, the rules are changing for all of us. The old ways are shifting if not falling away entirely. Don’t be bound by the old lines or by mindsets, your own or those of others that are outdated. Prepare to be agile and adaptable. As Hamlet reminds us, “The readiness is all.”
As I told the students that day of my own journey, “It never was a clear path. It was always going to be complicated. It was always going to be fraught.” The future for those students, and for all of us, remains no less complicated and unpredictable. Prepare to embrace the unexpected rather than clinging to the past. If you hold tight to your commitments and the clarity you have about what you want to give to the world, then opportunities to live out this commitment will emerge in any context and in any role.
The world is not waiting with a job or waiting to fulfill your expectations. It never was, but the world is indeed waiting for you.
What commitment have you made or will you make to help mend this world?
Lessons from PUKAR, Pt 2: “The World is So Young” Youth-Focused Community-Based Participatory Action Research at Scale
This is the second and final part of a two-part blog series about PUKAR (Participatory Urban Knowledge and Action). For Part 1 of this blog, please click here. To see the Empyrean Research video interview with PUKAR director Anita Patil-Deshmukh, please click here or watch the embedded video at the end of this post.
Dr. Anita Patil-Deshmuhk joined PUKAR (Participatory Urban Knowledge and Action) in 2005 and immediately launched a new participatory action research fellowship which focused on skilling young people to carry out action research activities in their own communities. In her interview for Empyrean Research, Anita notes that the purpose of the youth fellowship is “create knowledge at the community level, through their lens, based on their aspirations, their problems, desires and issues, to create new knowledge which could not be created in an academic organization.”
PUKAR’s Youth Fellowship Program reminded me very much of work I had supported in east Tennessee several years ago with the Clearfork Community Institute (CCI), where my colleagues Michelle Mockbee, Marie Cirillo and Carol Judy designed a Community Led Action Research (CLAR) program which worked with young adults from the mountain communities in Campbell and Claiborne Counties of Central Appalachia. As was central to the CLAR work at CCI, Anita says that the purpose of the youth fellowship is to “generate the capacity to aspire” for young people living in challenging circumstances.
The youth fellowship program is open to anyone 35 and under, with no educational credential required to join. The participants in the program are a cross section of the city, from students at secondary schools to young construction laborers. The fellows commit to one year of learning and researching, giving up their Sundays for twelve consecutive months to participate in the weekly training sessions.
Students are organized in research teams of ten members. As a participatory, co-generative process, the participants have wide leeway in selecting the topic of their PAR inquires. PUKAR’s only guidance is that the work must be anchored in the young person’s locality and in the issues which effect their life’s condition. Through the process of designing the action research project and implementing it, Anita emphasized that participants learn not only research skills but also consensus building, teamwork and a capacity to work across diverse populations.
Although such projects require much support from PUKAR, the organization has managed to scale this program impressively. 300 youth researchers are trained through the fellowship program each year. The curriculum for the fellowship includes three core themes: 1) self-discovery 2) research skills and 3) social realities (caste, religion, inequality/justice). The research teams progress through a series of modules then begin to work in their teams as their action inquires begin. They are supported throughout by a research mentor from the PUKAR team.
At the end of the process, PUKAR holds a massive research dissemination event in which all of the fellowship teams present their research to their families, community members, research partners and other interested parties. This research findings fair is followed by a celebration of the young researchers, who take the stage to reflect on their experience of the program. I attended the end of program event this year in June and saw these young researchers in action. Their topics ranged from creating safe spaces for children in informal settlements, to addressing government policies to revive a community street market for local traders, to equitable public bathroom facilities for transgender individuals, and many more.
Having written extensively about how to evaluate change in action research using a 5 level ‘transformative knowledge’ framework (Bivens 2014), it was gratifying to hear Anita articulate a very similar cascade of impacts in terms of the changes the youth fellowship program produces:
"There is an enormous amount of self-transformation that the process brings. The transformation happens in them. It happens in their families, in the communities with whom they work, and of course it happens in PUKAR. We have changed a lot since this whole thing started."
While I had not made the family unit one of my levels of change in my earlier transformative knowledge framework, PUKAR’s projects, with their youth focus, do indeed expose families to new experiences. Anita provided an example of how one youth researcher’s family was deeply moved by attending a theater performance developed by transgender individuals in which the performers shared their daily challenges and dangers of life in Mumbai. The performance was a research output of the young person’s PAR work with a transgender group. The youth researcher's mother and the aunt were originally uncomfortable with the topic, but in order to support their young person's work, they were willing to attend the performance, to learn and ultimately to have their perspective on the issue turned upside down by their direct engagement with the transgender individuals and their stories which were surfaced during in the research process and performance.
Moreover, PUKAR’s youth fellowship programs have had measurable impacts in communities more broadly. Anita pointed to a youth fellowship project which managed to increase the child immunization rate in a particular Mumbai slum from 29%-90.7%. By mapping and documenting the situation, the youths’ work made it easier to get policy and ministerial assistance to support a targeted immunization campaign in the community.
Although these direct outcomes are important, Anita also emphasizes the meta-level significance of such work in building an “electoral, inclusive, participatory democracy.” This is often a theory of change underlying PAR work. PUKAR believes that building research skills simultaneously builds capacity for active citizenship. Given the sheer volume of young people in the world at the current time—young people under 30 comprise between 50-70% of the populations of most countries in the global south—PUKAR’s work to empower youth through research at scale is powerful. In her interview, Anita urges others to build programs which facilitate such deep, constructive youth engagement:
"Understand the importance of youth and their aspirations. Work with them because the world is so young. The world has never been this young before. If you want to bring about long term changes in the way this world is going, we think it needs to be made inclusive. Development has to be inclusive, development has to be participatory… These are the people who are going to decide where the world is going to go. It is important to enable them with knowledge and skills and right attitude. That will help everybody. Your security will depend on the equality or inequality for people in ‘third world countries.’"
Anita’s words resonate strongly as I write this. I am currently partnering with the United States Institute of Peace to use participatory action research as a method to empower marginal youth in several Sub-Saharan African countries. Through this project I am collaborating with colleagues and young people in Uganda, where 68% of the country’s population is under 30 years old. The future of this country, often called the “Pearl of Africa”, depends on the how effectively the nation's young people are prepared to take their country forward. I would argue, like PUKAR, that engaging youth to start now in building the communities and countries they want to live in is best way to build a future that they—and we—can all share and value.
Inclusion and participation aren’t just ways of making development more youth or community friendly. Participation is fundamentally about instilling in people a belief that they can shape the world they want to live in, cultivating their agency to put that vision into action through critical thinking, collaboration and civic engagement with the wider institutions of one’s community, country and society. These are skills the world needs desparately at the moment, in the global north as well as in the global south. PUKAR's youth programs provide a clear and effectively methodology for helping young people to develop these skills while simultaneously contributing to the betterment of their communities.
Bivens, F. (2014) "Networked knowledge as networked power: recovering and mobilising transformative knowledge through Participate." In Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence. T. Shahrokh and J. Wheeler, eds. Institute of Development Studies, Brighton.
Lessons from PUKAR, Pt 1: “The Right to Research.” Community-Based Participatory Action Research in the Slums of Mumbai
Empyrean Research is pleased to share its latest video interview in its ongoing series of profiles of global practitioners of participatory research. Empyrean Research director Felix Bivens interviews Anita Patil-Deshmukh, the executive director of PUKAR, at their offices in Mumbai.
PUKAR (Participatory Urban Knowledge and Action) is a participatory action research think tank which concentrates on urban and youth issues in the sprawling mega-city of Mumbai, India. The mission of the organization was inspired the writings of Arjun Apurdurai, with an intent to put the sociocultural anthropologist’s ideas for democratizing knowledge production and research into action. Asserting a “right to research”, Apurdurai (2004) argued knowledge and research should be produced where people live, by the people who live in that situation and context.
From the beginning PUKAR was interested improving the quality of life for Mumbai’s citizens, many of whom live in the city’s 2000 informal settlements, which are often referred to simply as ‘slums’. These cobbled together cities within cities can house up to 1 million people. Indeed, more than half of the city’s 21 million people are estimated to live in these unplanned communities.
PUKAR critiqued Mumbai’s conventional urban planning processes, which drew exclusively on technical experts and excluded the voices and knowledge of the people who lived in the city, in particular the knowledge of those in the informal areas which most needed improvements to infrastructure and public services.
Like Empyrean Research, PUKAR believes that knowledge which is contextual is incredibly powerful for addressing problems at the local level, providing insights and unlocking resources and relationships which facilitate change. With this frame in mind, the PUKAR team set out in the late 1990s to create processes of knowledge generation which surfaced the experience of the people living in the city’s slums.
Central to the approach that PUKAR developed is an understanding of “documentation as intervention.” Although each person in a community has a fund of knowledge about their daily lived experiences, it is considered anecdotal when it’s simply in people’s heads; however, when it’s documented and aggregated systematically, so that its visible and tangible, it can be leveraged more widely, with policy makers and other influential stakeholders.
In this vein, PUKAR works on several fronts to co-generate knowledge about health and social dimensions of life in the city’s slums. As well PUKAR works extensively with youth on some thirty projects a year, across the city and its suburbs, which also surface and utilize community knowledge as a tool for transformation. This last program, PUKAR’s Youth Fellowship Program, will be discussed in more detail in the next blog in this series.
The right to research, as expressed by Apurdurai and PUKAR, is about the right of people to be heard and recognized for what they know and have learned over years about the situations in which they live. Only they are their experts in their lives. When their knowledge and experiences are taken seriously, they recognize quickly that solutions, partial or maybe even complete, are close at hand.
Like the old man in Eckhart Tolle’s parable of the beggar on the box, who has for as long as he can remember begged while sitting on his only possession, a battered metal box. One day a passerby asks the beggar, “What’s in your box?” The beggar tells him that it is empty. He is certain of it for he has carried it around for years. At length, when passerby finally persuades the beggar to open his worthless box, the old man discovers it is filled with gold.
In so many cases, for so many communities, their treasure is also close at hand. With validation, with strategic support, with their collective knowledge fitted together through effective co-generation and analysis, their boxes too can be opened and the possibility of a better future revealed.
Another way to distinguish the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) from the rest of the global south: the composition of the outbound flight when you board at the major hub in North America or Europe.
On a flight to Mumbai or Beijing, the moment you step onboard you feel like you’ve already arrived. 80% plus of the passengers are Indian or Chinese respectively, a mix of business professionals and families in transit related to their global lifestyles and livelihoods. Last week I boarded the flight from Amsterdam to Kampala and it was totally the opposite. 80% white faces with a few Ugandan nationals interspersed. Just in my row there are Italian aid workers and American missionaries, on their missions of diverse kinds.
I’m not well placed to make judgments about either approach. I came into develop through church-funded international projects. On this day I’m a development worker on the way to facilitate a participatory action research (PAR) peacebuilding training. How am I different than any other outsider in view on this flight?
There is some definite merit in my focus on participation, on local knowledge and local folks to make the change. Hopefully that perspective will get wrapped into the approach of the local NGOs and leaders I am working with so that they bring out the best in their students and communities in terms of taking charge of their own processes of development.
Still, I have to look at this plane view a bit grimly and see the persisting inequality and the cognitive injustice of all these ideas, secular and spiritual, flying into a place with a history longer than any of our cultural homes in the north. So let me set the intention to carry ideas home from this trip and, when I can, bring my African colleagues to Empyrean in Tennessee to teach, share and train from their experience and perspective.
Our systems of justice and development are far, far from sufficient. Let us continue to question our motives and our effectiveness and push always for something which better embodies the end result we want to see, rather than reproducing the old forms in new spaces, with new names, though still equally recognizable by who’s on the ‘bus’ and who’s not.
Felix is the founder and director of Empyrean Research. Based in Tennessee, he travels widely with his work for Empyrean.
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